HOMESTEAD, Fla. –The storybook season for Martin Truex Jr. had a happy ending Sunday night. Truex held off Kyle Busch in closing laps Sunday to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and earn the crown as the 2017 champion.
“I never thought this day would come, and to be here is so unbelievable,” Truex said.
Truex was a factor nearly all of the 400 laps taking the lead for the final time when Kyle Busch pitted on lap 216 to try a strategy that could have seen him stay out while the rest of the field would have needed one more stop.
That strategy came apart on lap 227 when in an ironic twist Kyle’s elder brother Kurt spun and brought out what turned out to be the fifth and final caution of the race allowing the rest of the field to pit and get enough fuel to make it to the end.
“I told my guys we were going to dig deeper than we ever have today, and (with) 20 (laps) to go, I thought I was done – they were all better than me on the long run all day long,” Truex said. “I just found a way. I found a lane that I could use, and I found a lane that was blocking enough of their air that they couldn’t use it and just made it happen.
Truex would take the lead on the ensuing restart as Busch methodically worked his way forward. He caught fellow championship contender Kevin Harvick on lap 249 passing him and setting his sights on leader Truex.
In the closing laps Kyle Larson would settle into third as Busch got within a car length of Truex in the final ten laps. In a tense final 10 laps, Busch would try different lanes but could never get close enough to make a move for the win.
“It wasn’t quite what we wanted there at the end,” Busch said. “I thought we had a really great race car, especially on the long runs we were really, really good. Just came down to there at the end not having enough tire when I got to the 78, so I just overused my stuff, and I knew I overused my stuff when I was running with the 22 trying to get by him and just overworked everything and got to the 4, got by him pretty quick, I tried to make sure that I could do that pretty quick so then I could have at least a little more tire life, but didn’t seem to pay me off any when I got to the 78.”
In a career year that saw Truex win eight races, including his first at Homestead, Truex was feted as NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series champion for 2017.
Behind Busch, fellow champion contender Kevin Harvick finished fourth.
“I think when you look at it from the inside out and all the work that everybody went through, the preparation that we went through to get to these playoffs was second to none,” Harvick said. “It was a championship effort. Just came up a little bit short. Congratulations to Martin (Truex Jr.). Those guys have been the dominant car all year. To go win the race and make it happen at the end they were able to get their car better and win the championship.”
The fourth contender Brad Keselowski came home seventh.
“We ran as hard as we could and put it all out there and just basically didn’t have enough speed,” Keselowski said. “On the mile-and-a-halves we weren’t as good as the 78 and 18 and those guys. This last race coming down to a mile-and-a-half didn’t particularly bode well for us, but my team ran as hard as they could run. They made some great calls – Paul Wolfe and everybody and put ourselves in position every chance we could to make the most out of the opportunities that existed without just being lightning fast, but it wasn’t there.”
Kyle Larson, who led the most laps on the night and won both stages, came home third, Chase Elliott fifth. Joey Logano was sixth, Matt Kenseth in most likely his final race finished eighth, pole sitter Denny Hamlin was ninth with Ryan Newman rounding out the top 10.
Danica Patrick, who announced her retirement from fulltime racing on Friday, saw her career end with a fiery crash on lap 141. She wasn’t injured but her day, and career was over.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. who started his day leaving pit road for the pace laps with congratulations from all the crews, wasn’t a factor in his final race as a fulltime Cup driver; he finished 25th, two laps down.
“I didn’t cry until I was hugging Rick’s (team owner Rick Hendrick) neck. Man he’s been like a father to me with the things he’s done for me personally, and in personal stuff,” Earnhardt said. “He’s really helped me more than anybody will ever know. And he’s done that for a lot of people and so I will miss trying to make him proud. I know I will still be able to do things that will make him proud because he’s like a daddy. I’ll miss driving his cars and trying to make him proud on the race track.”
At the end of the evening, it was Truex and a crew that overcame a great deal of adversity in 2017 that included the loss of friends, a crewmember who died of a heart attack the night before the Kansas race, a girlfriend battling cancer, and a team owner who was at home recovering from a heart attack and bypass surgery.
It also marked the first time since 1988 a team based outside of North Carolina has won a Cup tire, the last being the Dawsonville Georgia based team of Bill Elliott.
NASCAR now takes a break with the first race of the 2018 NASCAR Cup season coming at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18, 2017.